Thomaston – The head coach was in a rehabilitation facility, the Shepherd Center, about 85 miles away.
But there it was clear the head coach Tommy Parks was on the minds of a several thousand fans at Upson-Lee’s Matthews Field.
Scores of fans – as well as Griffin’s coaching staff - wore “TPStrong” t-shirts, and there were different avenues of fund-raising going on throughout the facility as Parks recuperated from a stroke suffered in July.
But Griffin’s defense and Upson-Lee’s problems snapping the ball were the keys in the Bears’ 17-7 win at Matthews Field in non-region action.
The Bears beat the Knights for the seventh straight time, coming up with scores of big plays – especially defensive back Jordan Favors and defensive lineman Damarjhe Lewis –in the fourth quarter to keep Upson-Lee out of the end zone.
“Our defense is our strength,” Griffin head coach Antonio Andrews said. “We’re gotta lean on those guys until the offense starts clicking.”
It was the Knights’ third game of the season under interim head coach Justin Elder, who took over after the 45-year-old Parks suffered a stroke at home in early July. He was initially treated in Macon before moving to the Shepherd Center.
Parks played on a state championship team in 1988 at R.E. Lee Institute, which merged with Upson High in the early 1990s. He took over at his alma mater 2014, and is 21-11 in three seasons, excluding 2017.
“We always try to be businesslike,” Elder said of the Knights’ focus under such circumstances. “They have been so resilient, focusing on football and focusing on getting the job done, because that’s what Coach Parks would want us to do.”
Upson-Lee put forth a markedly better showing than last year’s 53-7 loss.
“We had some shots in the first half, didn’t quite get it executed,” said Elder, whose team fell to 2-1. “Two big pass plays. We’ve got to keep them in front of us. Take those two big pass plays away and it’s a different ballgame.”
Griffin, 3-0 and ranked eighth in the AJC Class AAAAA poll, watched its early 6-0 lead –courtesy of a 46-yard touchdown pass from Avion Nelson to Terrell Jester - evaporate, thanks to giving up 35 yards in penalties on one Upson-Lee drive, after an illegal shift negated an 85-yard touchdown pass by the Knights.
Upson-Lee’s Thad Webb went in from 16 yards and Brady Puckett’s point-after kick put the Knights up 7-6 early in the second quarter.
The teams struggled to get much going on offense, so Griffin relied on its defense for some points. Malik Taylor blocked a punt in the end zone for a safety and an 8-7 lead with 1:34 left in the half.
The Knights’ defense stepped up after the free kick and forced a fourth-and-long punt only to fumble it back on the return. Griffin had 39 seconds left and the ball on Upson-Lee’s 35, but got only two yards.
The defenses continued to control the game, Griffin getting another blocked punt after Upson-Lee’s first possession of the third quarter only for the Knights to force a three-and-out.
Griffin took advantage of Upson-Lee’s young secondary with a 15-yard pass to Jester followed two snaps later by a 31-yard touchdown pass to David Westmoreland, who came down with the ball in traffic at the endline.
That put the Knights in an eight-point hole, one that seemed bigger with the Upson-Lee offense struggling, thanks in part to a continuing problem with rhythm-disrupting shotgun snaps as well as Griffin’s quality defense.
The Class AAAA Knights converted a fourth-and-2 to open the fourth quarter, but had to punt after losing eight yards on consecutive plays. They got it back when the punt touched a Bears player, but lost four yards on first down and then Favors hammered quarterback Cameron Traylor for an 11-yard loss on fourth down with 7:34 left in the game.
Traylor was sacked in the end zone with 1:24, the Knights’ 10th negative play of the second half.
Andrews was happy to see his team handle a test, especially against a talented front seven, after beating Spalding and LaGrange 36-7 and 31-0.
“(Travon Walker) is as good as I’ve seen all year, in a few years,’ he said of Upson-Lee’s junior defensive end. “(Jaden Barron) and Lazavier Moore, those guys are amazing.
“I’m proud that my offense was able to get through this. I’m serious. They got through it.”